Dr Rebecca Spencer on Potential Takeaways, Topics of Interest at SLEEP 2021

Rebecca Spencer, PhD, professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and co-chair of SLEEP 2021, highlights takeaways from this year’s meeting and discussions she’s looking forward to.

Participants will have access to the latest research in the sleep field that will address pressing topics of long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic and disparities in sleep health, said Rebecca Spencer, PhD, professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and co-chair of SLEEP 2021.


What are some takeaways you hope participants and audience members gain from this year’s SLEEP meeting?

I hope that the takeaway message is it's a really exciting field and it's an exciting time to be part of the sleep field. To me, I see, really just like with insomnia as we'll hear from our keynote speaker, we're seeing really transformative research in some of the most basic areas of sleep science.

We're seeing transformative research coming out in the area of insomnia, in the area of REM [rapid eye movement] sleep behavior disorder, and pediatric sleep disorders. These are areas that we should know more about, but now we're really seeing some really groundbreaking science coming out of them. I feel like it's an exciting time to be part of the field, because we're seeing just rapid changes in some of the most basic questions that we have. So, I think that's certainly a take home message.

And then, of course, there's what should we have learned from the pandemic and how will that change us in the long term. So, clinically, I think there's some changes in terms of how clinical sleep medicine will be delivered in the long term, just from lessons that we've learned and ways that we've been pushed outside of our comfort zone during the pandemic. But then also how that changes what's seen in the sleep clinic—just COVID-19 long-haulers and any ramifications that come from that. So, I think that's really going to be the excitement that comes from the meeting. I really look forward to it.

As co-chair of the meeting, what sessions or discussions are you looking forward to most?

I'm particularly excited this year about the number of sessions, presentations, and posters that we're going to have on COVID-19. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of research that turned to trying to understand how sleep was being affected by pandemic conditions, as well as on the clinical side, how sleep is changed in response to COVID-19. And even in long-haulers.

There's some great sessions that will be touching on disparities and how different populations were affected. I think that there's some really interesting things in terms of adolescents. So, this is a really practical one: We have an adolescent population that has the unique situation of online learning and how that changed sleep, and so Jared Saletin, PhD, has a session or a presentation on that that I'm really excited about. And I think in the same session, there's also one that gets at how the pandemic-related changes altered schedules and how the altered schedules also, again, affected the sleep patterns of adolescents.

So, there's going to be some presentations around how the pandemic and COVID-19 also affected mental health and then how that, in turn, relates to sleep. So, that’s certainly going to be a hot area, and we have a couple different sessions coming at that from a couple different angles. And on one hand, we can say, well, the pandemic’s passing, what do we do?

I think we have a lot we can learn about this. It's going to tell us the basic science about some of these relationships and how things are related even when the pandemic is gone. So, there's a lot to even know, for instance, about how much screen time or how much schedules affect our sleep, affect our mental health, and that's what I think we're going to learn a lot about in this conference.

The other area that I'm excited about is [there are] a couple sessions on sleep disparities and how sleep has changed across different populations, and how that's related to various different types of discrimination and mental health. There's some really exciting sessions on that topic as well.

So, those are my highlights. And then of course, I think our keynote speaker is going to be a great crossover from the clinical side to the basic translational side. It's Eus JW Van Someren, PhD, who's going to be speaking on his work on insomnia. And he just comes at it with a really interesting novel perspective. Insomnia is one of those basic research areas for our field, but it's exciting to see it booming with this really new, interesting perspective that he'll be talking about.

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